College of the Atlantic, hotels whipsawed by visa changes

BAR HARBOR — With ever-changing rules and restrictions on travel due to the coronavirus pandemic, international students and workers here have faced a lot of uncertainty. 

At College of the Atlantic, where about a quarter of the 350 or so students hail from other countries, both the immediate shift to remote instruction in the spring and the planning for the fall have been complicated by travel restrictions and abrupt changes to the student visa programs. 

The seasonal restaurants and hotels that rely on temporary foreign workers here on H-2B visas have also been in a strange bind. Some had to bring workers here before their businesses were open for the season, some canceled their requests for workers this year and others were out of luck when the system shut down abruptly in April. 

“There have been an incredible number of immigration orders, changes in rules, procedures and policies,” said Marcus Jaynes, an immigration attorney who works with some Bar Harbor employers. 

On July 6, U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement released a directive saying that students whose academic programs are fully online would not be able to maintain their legal status. A week later, after an outcry from college leaders including COA President Darron Collins and politicians including Senator Susan Collins, and a lawsuit brought by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the agency rescinded the order. 

The directive would likely not have affected COA students, Collins said, because the college is planning a hybrid model of in-person and online instruction for the fall. But he said that by encouraging schools to resume in-person instruction, the directive created a “disincentive to do the right thing from a public health standpoint. 

“If on Oct. 1 the numbers are looking like they’re heading in the wrong direction, we want to preserve the flexibility if that makes sense to do at some point in this pandemic.” 

COA students come from 55 countries. Fully participating in online college from abroad would be difficult for all of them and impossible for some, he said. 

“Many times they’re coming from places where not only is access difficult, but they are Zooming from home where families are around and that’s not always easy, as we’ve all experienced.” 

The college is opening its campus to a full residence program in the fall, with an extensive testing program, changes to how campus buildings are used and some faculty teaching remotely. 

The testing will be done in partnership with the Massachusetts-based Broad Institute. All on-campus students, faculty and staff will be tested twice at the beginning of the term “to make sure we’re not exposing the MDI community to increased risk,” Collins said. The college has agreements with hotels and other options to isolate or quarantine people if needed. Then, the college will continue to test 20 percent of the community each week. 

“We’re essentially rebuilding our campus to make it as safe as humanly possible,” he said. “Using that 6-foot distance as the standard, we don’t have loads of spaces where 20 people can be together all at once. We’ve had to be really creative about refurbishing other spaces in order to do that,” including the Dorr Museum and the library reading room. 

“It’ll be a historical fall for sure,” Collins said, adding that the faculty have done an “extraordinary job” adapting, planning and preparing. 

H-2B workers 

The H-2B and J-1 visa programs, under which many local employers hire foreign workers for seasonal jobs, have long been the subjects of controversy and changes, even before the pandemic. 

The J-1 program is for people who are full-time students in their home countries. The H-2B program is for temporary non-agricultural workers and is frequently a political football. Almost every year, Congress and federal agencies debate how many such visas should be issued, who should get them and whether workers returning to a job they’ve had before should be exempt from the annual cap. 

This January, in contrast to the year before when the online system crashed, it was going smoothly, Jaynes said. 

“They got it right,” he said. “It was a good interface, everything was clear. People were getting their notices of acceptance (or deficiency) in a timely fashion.” 

They were also getting word that some number of additional workers might be allowed, that there would be some “cap relief” this year, but the agencies involved had not acted when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Then on April 2, the Department of Homeland Security announced in a tweet that the cap relief was on hold “due to present economic circumstances.” The State Department had also suspended routine visa services overseas. 

“That kind of killed off the idea that there would be any cap relief,” Jaynes said. “A lot of people were left in the lurch.” 

The Bar Harbor Inn, where some workers on H-2B visas have worked every season for 15 years, was one of those. 

“At one point they were already booked and had flights to come and we had to cancel everything,” said Jeremy Dougherty, the inn’s general manager. Other workers were rushing to get home to Jamaica from winter jobs here before the airports closed. That country does not have an unemployment insurance or compensation system, he noted. 

Business was down this year, of course, especially in the early part of the season, he said, but the hotel still needed its 25 H-2B workers. 

The last group of those workers arrived just in time for the Fourth of July, Dougherty said. He has been driving groups of workers personally to the Convenient MD testing facility in Bangor for COVID-19 testing. He also gets tested himself, partly because he doesn’t want to ask his staff to do something he wouldn’t do himself. 

“Those nasal things freak everybody out.” 

Dougherty said it’s been important for him, in the midst of all the paperwork and requirements this unusual season has brought with it, to remember that “it’s still people that we’re dealing with.” Both employees and customers are uncertain; responding to that uncertainty “has to come from a human element,” he said. 

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.